Zoonotic diseases are in the news and the news is not good. Sixty percent of human diseases are zoonotic–that is they are spread to humans from animals (at least at first). This includes terrifying rabies that everyone knows comes from the bite of an infected animal to diseases like flu that we think of as human. The evocative title of this book, “Spillover” is the actual scientific term used by disease ecologists for the moment when a pathogen passes from members of one species into another. I like books about animals. I’m all over cute and fluffy and I’m fascinated about the role that we play in animals’ lives. Spillover is a book about the role animals play in human lives and you may not sleep peacefully after reading it.
David Quammen spent almost a decade gallivanting around the world, interviewing hundreds of scientists, doctors and disease survivors as well as researching and writing Spillover. It is almost 600 pages, but I was unable to put it down as he talked about the SARS outbreak in 2003, and the origins of AIDS and ebola. I learned an enormous amount about virology, natural history and epidemiology. And if you are obsessed and super-nerdy (like me) you will enjoy Spillover’s 25-page bibliography of scientific studies that you can look up in PubMed.
Quammen has a gift for making the scientifically complicated understandable to the everyday reader. He has a poetic turn of phrase about viruses–“They can’t run, they can’t walk, they can’t swim, they can’t crawl. They ride”–that just highlights how scary they can be. I learned odd facts for instance that certain types of moths and tent caterpillars have outbreaks on trees some years. The caterpillars die back because they are killed by viruses that cause them to ‘melt’ onto leaves, and then the other caterpillars just eat them (yuk!) Thankfully, unlike the insects, we can change our behavior to protect ourselves from viruses!
I think the best quote from Spillover sums up human knowledge and control over zoonotic diseases in general. We think we’re ahead but we might not be. When asked a lot of questions about the Hendra virus in Australia, scientists answered: “We don’t know but we’re working on it.”
Spillover is a sure bet for readers who are fascinated by the role of diseases in human history. For nonfiction readers who have tried The Ghost Map, by Steven Johnson, or Rabid: a Cultural History of the World’s Most Diabolical Virus, by Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy. Or for fans of fiction such as Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague, by Geraldine Brooks.
Check the WRL catalog for Spillover